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Offseason Targets Part III: Devin Booker

As his rumored frustration with the Phoenix front office grows, we have to wonder: could Devin Booker request a trade to Minnesota?

Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves have made the playoffs once in the last 15 seasons. One time.

For years, Wolves fans have been starved of star power, relevancy, and most importantly, a winning basketball team. One would think that the howling hopeful would be somewhat satiated by the acquisition of D’Angelo Russell to pair with incumbent superstar Karl-Anthony Towns, right? Maybe, maybe not.

Back in October of 2019, “The Gen-Z Three” as I like to call them, graced the cover of SLAM Magazine. Russell minced no words about the trio’s future together.

“We gotta do this again, when we’re all on the same team,” Russell told SLAM. “Nah, don’t cut it. Y’all got it on footage. When we’re all on the same team - I ain’t gonna tell you which team because I don’t know - we’re gonna do this again.”

After Minnesota’s failed public courting of Russell last summer, his quote felt much like salt being thrown in the still-open wound of Timberwolves faithful. However, it is seen in a much different light now, considering recent developments coming to light as it relates to Booker’s relationship with the Phoenix Suns.

Wolves Twitter was thrown into a frenzy not once, but twice last week.

SNY’s Ian Begley reported that Devin Booker was unhappy with the Suns’ decision to not pursue D-Lo in free agency last summer. Begley also added that Booker was unhappy with the Suns organization as a whole at the time of the report, per league sources. Whether that means Booker is on his way out, or is interested in forcing his way to Minnesota, is still very, very uncertain, as is how the Wolves could muster up enough assets to get a deal done.

Then, during an appearance on ESPN’s The Jump, former Suns Assistant Director of Basketball Operations Amin Elhassan was not shy about where he thought Booker would land if he wanted out of Phoenix.

Leon Rose, Booker’s former agent at CAA, is now the President of Basketball Operations for the New York Knicks. Despite this, I struggle to see Booker opting for his former agent over his two best friends in the league.

At the end of the day, choosing a destination has more to do with the actual basketball more than anything else. So, let’s get into Devin Booker the basketball player before evaluating whether Rosas and company have a real shot at acquiring the young star.

Background

  • Team: Phoenix Suns
  • College: Kentucky
  • Age: 23
  • Experience: Fifth season
  • Position: Shooting Guard
  • Height: 6’5”
  • Wingspan: 6’8”
  • Weight: 205 pounds

Statistics

Per game: 26.1 points, 6.6 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks, 3.9 turnovers on 36.1 minutes

Shooting splits: 48.7 FG% / 91.6 FT% / 36.0 3P% on 18.0 FGA / 7.1 FTA / 5.6 3PA

Advanced: 61.7 TS%, 54.3 eFG%, 29.5 USG%, .129 WS/48 minutes, 2.1 BPM, 1.14 PIPM, 0.70 RAPM

Similarity Score + Contract Information

Booker is in the first year of a five-year, $158M max contract; so, I will not calculate a similarity score or compare him to any current free agent.

Strengths

Dynamic Shotmaking

There are very few players who are as offensively gifted as Devin Booker. Book is a candidate to fill it up at a moment’s notice, on any given night.

What makes the former Kentucky Wildcat such a prolific scorer is not only his ability to make shots from all over the floor, but also his knack for getting to his spots and consistently making tough, complex dribble moves and fakes look like child’s play, too.

In this play, Justin Jackson is so concerned about Devin rising up for a mid-range jumper that he jumps at the excellent ball fake and gets turned around after he lands. Instead of trying to attack a crowded paint, Booker pulls off a silky smooth step-back because he knows he has Jackson sliding toward the rim. I have watched the play maybe 20 times and it gets better each time I see it. The footwork, the ball fake, and the body control is all incredibly polished for a 23-year-old who was never a go-to guy in college.

Here, Book gets his initial baseline driving lane sealed off, so he takes his time and resets on the wing, lulling his rookie big defender to sleep with a seamless in-and-out dribble into a pull-up 3.

Let me assure you, the degree of difficulty to execute a move like this so flawlessly is so much larger than it appears. Booker’s ability to stay balanced before, during, and after his pull-ups and step-backs blow my mind. It speaks to how much time he has spent in the gym at a young age and how laser-focused his skill development work is. His offensive ceiling is the roof. Shoutout to MJ.

Imagine playing less than 10 minutes per game and being asked to come off the bench and guard Booker in the first quarter, only for him to hit you with this:

I would struggle to find the words to explain my defense, too, Javonte.

Despite Devin’s perceived lack of high-end burst off the bounce, he has no issues getting by defenders at the point-of-attack thanks to his consistently improving handles. Green gets his hips turned by the between-the-legs cross and is unable to get back in a defensive stance, which Booker exploits for an easy bucket “with a little kiss!”

(Man, I miss Bill Raftery. Anyways, back to DB.)

The shot clock is winding down. His teammates and home crowd need a spark heading into the fourth quarter. So, what does Book do? He conjures up a dizzying array of hesitation and crossover moves, culminating with a lightning quick step-back and a display of feathery touch ending in a buzzer-beating 3.

The Wolves have only had one true go-to isolation scorer in clutch moments since Kevin Garnett was shipped off to Boston back in 2007. Although J**** B***** was fun during his time in Minnesota and provided his fair share of big-time buckets, he has nothing on Devin Booker’s offensive shotmaking arsenal. Book’s scoring package is elite not only because of his ball-handling and jump shooting, but also because of his high off-ball IQ and strong finishing ability near the basket.

Slashing and Finishing Around the Rim

Devin Booker is the slasher and finisher that we all wish Andrew Wiggins could have become. For a player with a 29.5 usage percentage, he has elite off-ball vision and attacks open lanes to the rim aggressively, which makes life easier for every other Sun on the floor.

Here, Alex Caruso quickly identifies the hand-off action and tries to cut off Booker from receiving the ball. Phoenix uses hand-offs to get Booker going downhill several times per game, so Anthony Davis is playing up at the elbow to hedge to prevent DB from pulling up from 3. This leaves the lane wide open; Devin quickly realizes this, then cuts back door, uses the rim to shield himself from Davis trying to recover and block the shot, and finishes an absurd windmill reverse layup for an and-1.

And-1 finishes like these do not come few and far between for the 23-year-old stud, either.

I mentioned it above, but I will reiterate that the Suns love using Book in hand-off actions. It is important to note that Minnesota deployed this concept constantly once the team acquired Malik Beasley at the deadline. Our own Joe Hulbert recently wrote about how the Wolves utilize DHOs in a great film room piece.

Since he is a deadly sharpshooter who can rise up and shoot from anywhere on the floor, Booker’s shooting gravity makes driving the lane much easier for him. When he gets going downhill, there are few who can finish at the rim as consistently as Booker can, or take contact and maintain body control in the air like he does in this play.

Book’s finishing package is flat-out elite. I cannot name another NBA guard with his balance, body control, acrobatics, grace, and touch around the rim.

After diving into his game more, it is no surprise that he is shooting a career-high 72.3 percent from within three feet of the basket this season. That mark is up from 65.9 percent a year ago and the first-time All-Star is also a shooting a career high 23.3 percent of his shots from within three feet, too. These shots make up the second greatest percentage of his overall shot profile, trailing only 3-pointers, which account for 31.3 percent of his shots. I am also happy to report that long twos (16-30 feet) make up a career-low 11.4 percent of his overall field goal attempts.

I love Devin Booker’s floater game, too. In an overloaded strong side, Pascal Siakam falls asleep and does not switch onto Book after the hand-off. Mikal Bridges gets caught in the paint, but Devin cuts to the rim and finishes a soft little floater over Serge Ibaka for the hoop and the harm.

The speed and aggression of Booker’s cuts are impressive as well. Like I mentioned earlier, he is not perceived to be an explosive athlete, but sequences like his make you think twice about adopting the public’s perception of his athleticism.

The fifth-year pro can do more than just fill it up, too.

Playmaking

In the past couple years, the part of Book’s game that has grown the most might be his playmaking. As he has become an offensive juggernaut, his presence alone on the floor has understandably attracted growing attention. The former 3-point contest champ’s heavy shot gravity pulls defenders beyond the 3-point line, which not only makes it easier for him to penetrate and collapse the defense, but also for his teammates to cut to the basket and spot-up for open jumpers.

This season, the Suns have scored 12.6 more points per 100 possessions with Booker on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. That mark places him in the 98th percentile league-wide, as does the team’s 5.0 percent increase in effective field goal percentage while Devin is in the game. What could help the Wolves the most, however, is his effect on his team’s free throw rate (FTR). Phoenix’s FTR rose by 5.1 percent with the former Kentucky 6th man on the floor putting pressure on the defense, which was good for the 93rd percentile among all NBA players.

While some may see that as a nod to his scoring prowess, I view it more as a nod to the overall pressure he puts on the defense and how much easier he makes the game for his four teammates in the game with him.

In this first play, Booker bulldozes a much smaller defender into the paint, where the weak-side help collapses onto him on the opposite block, freeing up Cam Johnson for a wide-open corner 3. His ability to attract defensive attention in such diverse ways greatly simplifies his reads, allows for easier passes, and often results in easy shots and assists.

Next, the effect of Devin’s jump shot gravity is on full display. Dillon Brooks overcommits on a shot fake, which creates a driving lane for Booker to fill. Book attracts all five defenders and makes a ridiculous jump pass around Jaren Jackson Jr. for a clutch, game-tying 3 from Kelly Oubre Jr.

This just goes to show that not only can Booker make advanced reads for a ball-dominant shooting guard, but he can also deliver passes with a high degree of difficulty when it matters, too.

Booker is a fantastic playmaker for himself and others in the PnR as well.

Here, Deandre Ayton sets a high ball screen that allows Booker to get a head of steam going to the cup. He feels Ayton rolling down the lane with him as DeAndre Jordan leaps up to contest a potential layup, so he throws a perfectly placed two-handed bounce pass to Ayton for the layup.

Whether he gets doubled, tripled, iced, hedged hard, or is the target of a soft box-and-one, it does not matter. Booker will still find a way to score, hit an open teammate, or make the defense pay for overcommitting itself to him.

Transition

Unfortunately, D’Angelo Russell is not the most athletic, pace-pushing guard in the NBA. However, Devin Booker would could fill that void as a great transition playmaker and scoring threat.

Over the past week, I have seen countless clips of Ayton corralling a rebound and immediately looking for Book to push it quickly or Booker rebounding the ball himself and flying up the floor starting the break.

He is a dangerous threat with the ball in his hands in the open floor, especially when flanked by Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr. These two are perfect wing complements to him in transition; both are excellent finishers, great athletes, and knockdown corner shooters.

His offensive IQ is so, so high at just 23. He always keeps his head up, deciphering the transition defense, and successfully making split-second decisions on whether to attack the rim, pull it back, or hit teammates in stride for easy buckets.

Here, he makes the smart decision to pull it back and let his teammates fill the lane. Instead of launching a step-back 3, he scans the floor one last time and throws an on-target laser to Jevon Carter for a 3 in the opposite corner.

Booker’s off-ball vision and cutting really stand out when one of his teammates is running the break.

What seems like a very simple cut actually serves as a major separator between elite offensive players and good ones. Booker can spot-up and drain shots from anywhere, but the fact that he weaponizes that ability for other uses is huge. A good player would spot-up, remain shot-ready and take a shot if the ball rotated to him from the corner. Devin instead sees two defenders commit to Elie Okobo and Tyus fall asleep, and makes himself available in the lane for an easy dunk.

He is not afraid to pull up in transition, either, especially during clutch situations or near the end of the half.

I love the attacking, alpha dog mentality he has.

Post Scoring

As the NBA becomes more and more switch heavy, smaller guards often end up defending bigger players if a team rotates the ball enough. Devin Booker is excellent at recognizing the presence of a smaller defender and flashing to the block to post him up.

Even some true shooting guards get obliterated in the post while trying to guard D-Book. Donte DiVencenzo is 6’5”, 203 pounds (nearly identical to Booker’s 6’5”, 205 pounds), but still gets destroyed.

Barbecue chicken.

Here, Booker displays a combination of his unique skillset.

He rejects the pin-down screen to flash into an empty lane and then hits Pat Bev with a cruel post fadeaway and-1. His post fadeaway is simply unguardable for defenders his size and smaller, thanks to his supreme body control, high release point, and outstanding head fakes. Point guards have no chance.

Weaknesses

Now that you are having an out-of-body experience imagining Devin Booker’s incredible offensive talent alongside KAT and D-LO, it is time for me to bring you back down to Earth.

Perimeter Defense

To put it mildly, Devin Booker is atrociously bad on defense. His defensive real adjusted plus-minus (in my opinion the best metric for measuring defensive impact) is -1.53. That places him 501st out of 514 eligible players, between Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins. If you are more of a player impact plus-minus person, his D-PIPM is -2.45, tied with Isaiah Thomas for seventh worst in the NBA.

For good measure, when he was on the floor, the Suns gave up a whopping 6.8 more points per possession compared to when he was on the bench, ranking in the 8th percentile league wide.

Here, Booker unnecessarily doubles Jokic, leaving Paul Millsap wide-open at the 3-point line. Devin closes out with the wrong foot forward, allowing Millsap to deploy a simple jab and crossover step for an effortless layup.

This lack of effort is terrible, considering the Suns are playing one of the best teams in the West and it is still only the first quarter. It looks even worse when he is capable of playing defense like this when he locks in:

Booker’s off-ball defense is worrisome, too, particularly because he often gets caught ball-watching and loses track of his matchup. With two defenders already in the paint on a take from Moe Harkless, who had zero points at the time, Booker stops to watch and think about helping instead of sticking to Landry Shamet, one of the better young shooters in the NBA. By the time he realizes where Shamet is, it is too late; Booker makes a poor close-out and contest, resulting in three free-throws for Shamet.

To make you feel better, here is my favorite defensive play of the year from Booker:

Despite his tendency to ball-watch and fall asleep on defense, when he is locked in and hustling, his defensive flashes are quite impressive. If he were to land in Minnesota, those lapses would have to come few and far between.

Turnovers

The only true offensive weakness Booker has is that he is quite turnover prone.

Among the 25 players with a usage percentage north of 28.0% that play more than 30 minutes per game, Booker is third in turnovers at 244 (3.9 per game), trailing only James Harden and Trae Young, per Basketball Reference. That is 70 more turnovers than the next player with a usage percentage under 30%. While Booker has not always had great help around him in Phoenix, these numbers are alarming.

Plays like this are lazy and unacceptable for a player of Booker’s immense talent.

What makes this worse is that he compounds the mistake by failing to wrap Tatum up and Tatum easily finishes off the and-1.

As can be the case with many offensive superstars, Booker often tries to make passes that are too ambitious while driving, instead of coming to a jump-stop and surveying his options. When he gets caught in the air or sees secondary or tertiary help defenders, he sometimes throws ridiculous passes like this:

If he were to play in a far more spaced out system in Minnesota, I would hope that he would see less defensive pressure on drives and could play more under control. When he gets out of control, he is more prone to make ill-advised passes and get too physical with contesting defenders.

While he is quite good at leveraging his body to create space to finish against larger defenders, he creates too much contact at times, resulting in offensive fouls.

Fit With Minnesota

Before I get into how feasible it is for the Minnesota front office to pull off a Booker deal, I will touch on a few quick examples of he could be utilized.

As we all know, KAT can attract two and sometimes three defenders while he is down on the block. Part of that is because he is that good down on the block, but it was mostly because the Wolves did not have any strong cutting or perimeter shooting threats all season. The addition of a guy who is excellent at both would make the game so much simpler for him. I can already envision plays like this one:

Booker is also great without the ball in his hands. In this baseline out of bounds (BLOB) play, he realizes the top of the key is wide-open, so he flares back and Ayton adjusts to keep his defender at bay. The result? A very easy look from deep.

KAT is an awesome screener, who could free up open looks for Booker all game long on BLOBs and SLOBs alike, as well as pin-downs, flare screens, and high and side ball screens.

Since Devin’s 3-point release is so quick and KAT is such a potent dual threat in the PnR and in hand-offs, opposing defenses would have fits trying to commit to one or the other in these actions. If teams are slow to decide or go half-in, half-out on one guy versus the other, Booker can make them pay like he does here.

His fit alongside D’Angelo Russell would be outstanding as well. Both are very experienced on-ball players, while they each have no problem stretching out defenses off the ball and opening up driving lanes for teammates.

I am sure Booker would love to have an incredibly gifted passer in Russell dishing to him out of PnRs, driving and kicking, and general set plays. Considering that another gifted shooter in Joe Harris had a historic season shooting the ball while playing next to D-Lo, I have no doubt that Russell would create easier shots for his best friend, while also delivering accurate feeds on cuts and post entry passes, too. Simply put, I have no doubt in my mind that a starting lineup featuring the trio of D-Lo, KAT, and Booker would be a top-five offense.

Defense, on the other hand, is a completely different story. In order to remain competitive, the Wolves would need to surround them with two very good defenders, while also hoping the all three stars buy-in more on defense and improve in their own rights.

Associate Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator David Vanterpool has made a defense work in a comparable defensive backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in Portland, but the team also had a bevy of long, defensively-minded bigs and wings that made his job much easier, which allowed the Blazers to switch much more consistently. In order for KAT to reach his potential on defense, I would love to see Vanterpool allow KAT to switch in the PnR and be more aggressive in his reads there. The drop scheme does not make as much sense with a hyper-athletic big that can get out and defend on the perimeter as it would with a true paint-protecting big.

While the Wolves could make the playoffs with a top-seven offense and a bottom-five defense, I truly believe the team would struggle to win any playoff series without major defensive improvements from all three players, especially Karl-Anthony Towns. If that can happen, and that is a huge if, Minnesota could evolve into a perennial mid-seed playoff team in the West.

Potential Trade

There are many Wolves fans who see this deal as an inevitable one. While I know you are excited at the prospect of Booker demanding a trade to Minnesota in light of recent reports, I strongly urge you to temper any expectations you have.

Booker is an elite young talent in the NBA who has the ceiling of a top-five offensive talent in the NBA that could win multiple scoring titles in his prime. He is in the first year of a five-year max contract and Phoenix has zero reason to trade him to Minnesota when other teams, such as the Thunder, Celtics, or Warriors, could easily beat out any offer Gersson Rosas can muster up.

With that being said, here are a couple financially feasible and somewhat realistic trades that Minnesota could offer Phoenix in the unexpected event that Booker demands to be traded here this fall and refuses to play anywhere else. Note that if Minnesota is only trading for Devin Booker that the Wolves can accept 125% of the money they send out. With Booker’s $29.4 million cap hit, Minnesota would need to send out at least $23.52 million.

Trade #1 - Goodbye, NBA Draft

Minnesota Receives:

  • Devin Booker
  • 2022 Second-Round Pick

Phoenix Receives:

  • Malik Beasley (sign-and-trade for four-years, $56 million)
  • James Johnson
  • Omari Spellman
  • 2020 First-Round Pick (works with Stepien Rule, as long as Minnesota gets Brooklyn’s 2020 FRP).
  • 2023 First-Round Pick
  • Rights to Pick-Swap 2024 First-Round Picks
(Stepien Rule editor’s note: Minnesota could hypothetically trade both of their selections in the 2020 draft, but would have to wait until both selections have been made to do so. In other words, the Wolves would make two selections for Phoenix in a handshake agreement, and then formally make a trade after both players have been drafted.)

Trade #2 - Three-Team Gymnastics

Minnesota Receives:

  • Devin Booker

Phoenix Receives:

  • Malik Beasley (sign-and-trade for four-years, $56 million)
  • Moe Harkless (sign-and-trade for one-year, $6.25 million)
  • Jarrett Culver
  • 2020 First-Round Pick (via Minnesota)
  • Rights to Pick-Swap 2022 First-Round Picks

New York Receives:

  • Omari Spellman
  • 2020 Second-Round Pick (via Minnesota)

At it currently stands, there is no trade on the horizon for the Wolves and the chances of acquiring Booker are minimal at this point. But rest assured, if Devin Booker requests a trade to Minnesota, Gersson Rosas and Sachin Gupta will work feverishly to make it happen, regardless of how poor of a fit you think Booker is or is not in Minnesota. If a small-market front office has the opportunity to get three stars - who are also best friends - all on the same team on long-term deals, they will make it happen.

Additionally, all three players have the same agent, Jess Holtz Steinberg, of CAA. Agencies are generally big fans of its star players playing together and can no doubt play a role in the facilitation of trades on behalf of their clients. Booker, Russell, Towns, and Steinberg are all extremely close, which is something to remember moving forward.

Whether Devin Booker will dawn the Wolves threads and power an offensive juggernaut in Target Center for 41 nights per year remains to be seen, but the rumblings of discontent are upon us and the games might just be getting started.